Once C. S. Lewis had rejected atheism as a reasonable worldview, and after researching myriad religious traditions, he narrowed his choices to two options: Hinduism and Christianity. In his essay “Christian Apologetics,” Lewis compared religions to soups: Some are like consommé, clear and thin (Confucianism, Unitarianism, and modern Judaism); while others are like minestrone, thick and dark (paganism and esoteric religions). But Hinduism, Lewis concluded, is actually two different religions, “thick” for the masses and “thin” for the sages. Only Christianity is both “thick” and “thin” for all people in the same religion (God in the Dock, p. 102).
After China, India is the second most populated country on earth, and its population is expected to surpass China’s in the coming decades. And because around 80 percent of Indians follow Hinduism, the number of Hindu faithful may in coming decades surpass its current standing as the world’s third largest religion after Christianity and Islam.
Despite being the largest Eastern religion, with roughly 950 million followers, Hinduism remains little understood by Westerners, many of whom of a certain age still associate it with the Beatles, Ravi Shankar, and ’60s pop gurus. Jules de Gaultier’s famous quip, “Imagination is the one weapon in the war against reality,” is regrettably true.
But Catholic Christians are beholden to truth, and truth is our best defense against the claims of religious pluralism, which is the foundational assertion of Hinduism.
A growing number of Americans identify themselves as Hindu. In a 2001 census by the American Religious Identification Survey, 766,000 Americans claimed to be Hindu; by 2008 that number had grown to 1.2 million (according to the 1999 edition of the Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches by the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA). In Klaus Klostermaier’s A Survey of Hinduism, he writes that “Hinduism is not only one of the numerically largest but also the oldest living major tradition on earth, with its roots reaching back into prehistoric times” (p. 1).
Hinduism is popular because, like Buddhism, it avoids conflict, since it believes all religious traditions are different paths to the same end. But, as we shall see, this is a contradiction: To assert that two conflicting positions are in fact correlative is not only irrational but untruthful. Christianity’s claim to be the only true faith, founded upon the natural and revealed certainties given by one God, cannot by sound reasoning fit into the ideals of religious pluralism.
Defining Hinduism: the basics
The first thing we must understand is that the word Hinduism referred originally to the region of the Indus River in northwest India. It wasn’t until the 18th century that Westerners began to use the word Hindu to denote the philosophical and religious beliefs of the people in that region.
In their own language, Indians refer to this religious tradition as Sanatana Dharma, and the key word in this name for Hinduism is dharma, which principally describes all reality. Dharma encompasses the order, law, and coherence of all existence and is associated with another word, sat, which means truth.
In one of the foundational texts of Hinduism, we read:
Verily, that which is Dharma is truth; therefore they say of a man who speaks truth, “He speaks the Dharma,” or of a man who speaks the Dharma, “He speaks the Truth.” Verily, both these things are the same (Brh. Upanishad, 1.4.14).
But dharma extends beyond truth, since it includes all of reality. Sanatana implies eternal or recurrent; thus Sanatana Dharma means the eternal dharma, without beginning or end. From the Indian point of view, Hinduism, or more accurately, Sanatana Dharma, is the religion of all eternal truth and reality.
The second point to remember is that, unlike Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and most other religious traditions, Hinduism claims no founder. And since its doctrines are all-inclusive, it does not have a concept of heresy, or unorthodox belief. Despite the fact that Hinduism resists doctrinal categories, and even rejects the descriptor “religion,” we can consider Hindu belief within several general categories: karma, samsara, moksha, and yogas, all of which combine with an overarching understanding of the nature (not natures) of Atman and Brahman.
Brahman and Atman
In one of India’s oldest texts, the Rig Veda (quoted in Indian Religions: A Historical Reader of Spiritual Expression and Experience, Peter Heehs, ed.), the question of creation and gods is confronted:
“Who really knows?
“Who will here proclaim it?
“Where was it produced? From where is this creation?
“The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.
“So who knows whence it has arisen?” (p. 51)
We see here the praiseworthy Hindu quest for understanding; admitting that there is a creation, and that there is, or are, a God or gods. The Rig Veda calls out for answers. Who knows, and who can tell us where it all came from? The Hindu answer to these ontological questions may be abridged into a simple formula: Brahman consists of all existence, the singular absolute reality; and Atman is the self.
Some Hindu followers equate Brahman with God, though the Hindu understanding of the “supreme being” (Brahman) is that he, or it, is both transcendent and non-transcendent. When Indian texts describe Brahman, they commonly use the phrase, “All this is Brahman” (cf. Chand Upanishads, III, 14, 1). In a longer passage on the nature of Brahman, we encounter this definition:
What is Brahman? Whatever reality is in existence, by which all the rest subsists, that is Brahman. An eternal behind all instabilities, a Truth of things which is implied, if it is hidden, in all appearances, a Constant which supports all mutations, but is not increased, diminished, abrogated (“The Knowledge of Brahman” from Katha Upanishad, quoted by Sri Aurobindo in The Upanishads, p. 245).
While Brahman includes “whatever reality is in existence,” Hinduism defines Atman as “the self.” Whereas Christianity teaches that the transcendent and eminent creator God is separate from his creation, Hinduism adopts the formula, “Brahman is Atman.” (For more on these two terms, see the classic work by Hervey DeWitt Griswold, Brahman: A Study in the History of Indian Philosophy, p. 52.) The final assessment of Brahman and Atman, according to Hinduism, is that they are indistinguishable.
As Catholic apologist Peter Kreeft puts it, “Individuality is an illusion according to Eastern mysticism. Not that we are not real but that we are not distinct from God or each other.” The Hindu belief regarding God (Brahman) and man (Atman) is pantheism, the view that God is not distinct from anything else and that everything is part of and equal to everything else.
One of the principal Catholic objections to the Hindu belief that all things are indistinguishable from one another is that it denies the possibility of a creator God. This and the notion of a Brahmanic pantheism are forcefully rejected in the Nicene Creed, in which Catholics proclaim, “I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.”
Karma and samsara
Karma is one of the Hindu words most commonly used in Western speech, yet it is also one of the most misunderstood concepts. Karma, when used by most Westerners, is generally equated with the adage “What goes around comes around.” In reality, karma is a technical term employed in Hindu and Buddhist discourse to describe actions that sustain one’s entrapment in the unhappy cycle of rebirth, known as samsara. In one of the more famous passages in the Bhagavad Gita, the law of karma is described:
To action alone hast thou a right and never at all to its fruits;
let not the fruits of action be thy motive;
neither let there be in thee any attachment to inaction (Bhagavad Gita 2.47).
Essentially, the text exhorts the reader to be divorced from any results, good or bad. Jeaneane Fowler states, “Karma means ‘act,’ ‘action,’ or ‘activity’ and refers not only to actions undertaken by the body but also those undertaken by the mind” (Hinduism: Beliefs and Practices, p. 11). That actions (karma) cause reactions is not the central implication for the Hindu; the problem is that karma is behind the concept of samsara, the cycle of rebirth, which is the cause of suffering and grief.
The central Hindu view of life and rebirth is that it is manifestly painful. Samsara, the cycle of reincarnation caused by karma, good and bad, is nothing other than an existence of suffering. A Hindu sacred text says, “Reaching the highest perfection, and having attained Me [the imperishable, supreme Brahman], the great-souled ones are no more subject to rebirth—which is the home of pain, and ephemeral” (Srimad Bhagavadgita, VIII, 15-16, 19).
In other words, when the Atman (self) ceases to produce karma (results caused by actions), it attains Brahman (the supreme oneness) and at last escapes samsara (rebirth), which consists only of suffering. The practical result of this belief is that the only moral compass for a Hindu is his own quest to hasten the eventual release from samsara. But even so, a Hindu can rest in his belief that suffering will end eventually, no matter what his current behavior is.
The threat of judgment or hell is absent in Hinduism, since there is no distinct God to judge human actions—nor is there an ultimate distinction between anything: heaven, hell, good, bad, self, or other. As Kreeft so aptly puts it in his essay cited above, “Since individuality is an illusion, so is free will. If free will is an illusion, so is sin. And if sin is an illusion, so is hell. . . . Perhaps the strongest attraction of Eastern religions is their denial of sin, guilt and hell.”
Scripture and the Church reject the Hindu doctrines of reincarnation and Brahmanic oneness. St. Paul says, “It is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27). And the Catechism of the Catholic Church reaffirms this belief:
Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven—through a purification or immediately—or immediate and everlasting damnation (CCC 1022).
Moksha or salvation
One of the clearest differences between Hinduism and Christianity can be seen in the concept of salvation. Liberation from the unhappy cycle of samsara is known as moksha, or literally the “release” from samsara. In the Bhagavad Gita, samsara is described in this way: “As a person puts on new clothes and discards old and torn clothes, similarly an embodied soul enters new material bodies, leaving the old bodies” (2.22). Hindu salvation is simply the end of reincarnation, and since all of one’s lives are suffering, this means the end of torment.
An ancient Indian epic describes moksha as a kind of “bliss in the regions hereafter” (The Mahabharata, section 6), despite the understanding that this “bliss” actually consists of a form of non-duality, or a state of being that would include neither bliss nor pain. The only common ground between Catholics and Hindus when defining salvation is that it includes a final release from suffering.
Catholics view salvation as a person’s liberation from sin and its consequences, and again we must emphasize the Christian teaching that the chance for this liberation is limited to a single lifetime. The Church Fathers wrote extensively on the Christian understanding of salvation and what one may expect after his life of trial. For instance, Origen wrote:
The apostolic teaching is that the soul, having a substance and life of its own, shall, after its departure from the world, be rewarded according to its deserts, being destined to obtain either an inheritance of eternal life and blessedness, if its actions shall have procured this for it, or to be delivered up to eternal fire and punishments, if the guilt of its crimes shall have brought it down to this (First Principles, preface 5).
Another difference between Catholicism and Hinduism is how religion is to be lived and salvation is to be attained. The Hindu concept of yogas is often overlooked when discussing these distinctions. The Western concept of yoga is very unlike the Hindu reality of many yogas, for yogas are merely paths, or methods, employed to attain moksha.
If the Church were to use Hindu terms, it would assert that Catholic Christianity is the one, true yoga, all other yogas excluded. The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism explains:
For it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help toward salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained. It was to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, that we believe that our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant, in order to establish on earth the one Body of Christ into which all those should be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the People of God (Unitatis Redintegratio 3:5).
Thus, the only route to authentic salvation is Christ and his Church; it is not attained by the elimination of karma-causing action, the worship of Hindu gods and goddesses, or meditating on the cosmic nature of Brahman. As Paul wrote, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved” (Rom. 10:9-10).
Hope for Hindus
Pope Benedict XVI begins his encyclical letter Spe Salvi by quoting St. Paul from Romans 8:24: “Spe salvi facti sumus”—“By hope we are saved.” The Holy Father continues, “Redemption is offered to us in the sense that we have been given hope,” and this hope applies not only to Christians but to all persons who are “moved by grace” (Spe Salvi 1).
While the Church affirms its role as the only true path toward salvation, it also admits that God’s grace reaches widely:
Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too many achieve eternal salvation (Lumen Gentium 16).
Perhaps the most famous Hindu of our era, Mahatma Gandhi, asserted, “I believe there is no such thing as conversion from one faith to another,” insisting rather that “our inmost prayer should be that a Hindu should be a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim, and a Christian a better Christian” (Autobiography, pp. 376-377).
This Hindu stance opposes the central teaching of Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, who, when Thomas the Apostle asked him the “way” (yoga), answered plainly: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6). Mother Teresa, who lived and prayed in India, as if in reply to all the teachings of Hindus, once said (in A Simple Faith, p. 43):
“There are so many religions and each one has its different ways of following God. I follow Christ:
“Jesus is my God,
“Jesus is my spouse,
“Jesus is my life,
“Jesus is my only love,
“Jesus is my all in all;
“Jesus is my everything.”